11 - Belgium 1946–1981.  pp. 230-253


By Derek J. Hearl

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POLITICAL PARTIES IN BELGIUM

As with the Netherlands, Belgian politics were relatively straightforward until the mid-1960s. Following the introduction of universal male suffrage in 1919, the then two-party opposition between Catholics and Liberals gave way to a classic ‘two-and-half’ party system in which the Socialist Party replaced the Liberals as the Catholics' chief rival. With few exceptions, governments were coalitions between two of these three ‘traditional’ parties formed in response to their gains and losses at successive General Elections. Two major cleavages seemed to underpin this system – a ‘left–right’ socio-economic cleavage together with an older ‘clerical/anti-clerical’ division which had divided Catholics from Liberals ever since the foundation of the State in 1830. Both changed after the Schools Pact of 1958 and the so-called Loi Unique or economic austerity package introduced by the Eyskens (Christian–Social/Liberal) government in the wake of Congo Independence in the 1960s. The former was effectively a ‘truce’ between the three parties concerning the last major clerical/anti-clerical issue. The second threw into sharp relief the growing economic disparity between the country's two main language regions, Flanders and Wallonia. The sudden removal of the clerical/anti-clerical cleavage allowed what had hitherto been a submerged division to rise to the surface. This ran across all three traditional parties, and had rapid and profound effects upon the party system.

‘Community’ issues and associated sub-cleavages have progressively given rise first to new parties and then to forced divisions among the traditional parties – generally along language lines.

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